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Laryngeal Cancer: Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy kills cancer cells by focusing powerful rays of energy at the tumor.

When might radiation therapy be used for laryngeal cancer?

Radiation therapy might be used for any of these reasons:

  • To kill cancer cells that might be left after surgery and lower the chance that the cancer will come back

  • For tumors that can't be removed with surgery

  • As the main treatment for some small (early stage) tumors, which may help your voice stay much the same

  • If you can't have surgery for other reasons, like you're too sick or have other major health problems

  • For a tumor that comes back after treatment

  • To help ease symptoms caused by advanced cancers, like pain or trouble swallowing

Radiation to the head and neck area can affect your teeth and gums. It can also cause problems with tissue healing after dental work. Because of this, it's important to have a full dental exam before starting radiation. If you have damaged teeth, some or all of your teeth may need to be removed because radiation can worsen any existing dental problems.

How is radiation therapy given for laryngeal cancer?

There are 2 main types of radiation therapy: external beam radiation treatment (EBRT) or internal radiation, also called brachytherapy.

External beam radiation treatment (EBRT)

This type of therapy uses a large machine to focus the radiation beams on the tumor. The machine doesn't touch you, and radiation treatment doesn't hurt. EBRT is the type of radiation therapy most often used to treat laryngeal cancer.

Some of the types of EBRT that may be used include:

  • Standard. Standard EBRT aims radiation at your tumor from one direction. Treatment is a lot like getting an X-ray, but it lasts longer.

  • 3-D conformal radiation therapy (3-D CRT). This form of EBRT uses a computer to shape the radiation beams and aim them at your tumor from many directions. This can decrease the dose of radiation to nearby healthy tissue and help lessen side effects.

  • Intensity-modulated radiotherapy (IMRT). IMRT uses a computer to control the direction, shape, and strength or intensity of the radiation beams. This allows a high dose to reach the tumor and decreases the dose of radiation to nearby healthy tissue to help lessen side effects. IMRT is the most common type of radiation used for laryngeal cancer.

Internal radiation or brachytherapy

Internal radiation therapy is done by putting radioactive material right into or near the tumor. It may be done along with EBRT. But it's seldom used for laryngeal cancer.

What are common side effects of radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy affects normal cells as well as cancer cells. The side effects of radiation depend on the amount and the type of radiation you get, as well as the part of the body being treated. It also depends on whether you're getting chemotherapy along with the radiation.

Radiation to the neck and throat often causes painful sores in the mouth and throat. This can make it hard for you to chew and swallow. Because of this, you may not eat or drink enough. The sores tend to go away a few weeks after radiation ends. But to help prevent weight loss and malnutrition, your doctor may choose to put a feeding tube into your stomach. This tube is called a percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy (PEG) tube. It's put into your stomach through a small cut (incision) on your belly. The PEG tube is taken out when it's no longer needed.

Other side effects from radiation therapy may include:

  • Skin in the treated area turns red and may peel or blister

  • Dry mouth

  • Thick, sticky saliva

  • Sore throat

  • Hoarseness

  • Trouble swallowing

  • Decreased sense of taste

  • Loss of appetite

  • Trouble breathing because of swelling

  • Tiredness

  • Swelling or scarring

  • Hearing loss

Side effects of radiation are worse when it's given along with chemotherapy.

In rare cases, radiation may lead to a breakdown of cartilage that can further damage your larynx. Or it may damage your windpipe or trachea.

Radiation to the neck might damage the thyroid gland. This may make you feel tired, gain weight, feel cold, and have dry skin or hair. If this happens, you may need to take thyroid hormone pills.

Radiation near the salivary glands may cause dry mouth. This may continue even after treatment ends because of lasting damage to the salivary glands. People with dry mouth after radiation must pay close attention to their oral and dental health. Dry mouth can cause tooth decay and tooth loss.

Most side effects go away after treatment. Talk to your doctor about what radiation side effects you should watch for. Ask what you can do to manage or even prevent side effects.

Online Medical Reviewer: Kimberly Stump-Sutliff RN MSN AOCNS
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Todd Gersten MD
Date Last Reviewed: 2/1/2021
© 2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.
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